A range of purchases made by South Australia’s largest council equated to “substantial mismanagement of public resources”, according to the state ombud.
The City of Onkaparinga council has been accused of maladministration after spending public money on potentially boozy restaurant meetings, catering, hire cars, and flowers, ombud Wayne Lines found.
In his latest report, he concluded the council failed to keep accurate records of credit card transactions. However, the questionable purchases were made during a time “when the council’s internal procedures provided little guidance as to what constituted appropriate expenditure”.
Mark Dowd was Chief Executive of the council when the purchases were made, but left the council in October. He denied the expenses amounted to maladministration.
While Lines noted meetings held at restaurants by the Director’s Group did not necessarily constitute maladministration, he argued that on several occasions, the cost of meals “were particularly excessive and inappropriate”. On one occasion, expenditure at a restaurant added up to $675.50. Lines said he found it “difficult to understand how such a large expense could have been incurred without the purchase of alcohol”.
“While I do not have sufficient evidence (which is of concern in itself),” he continued, “to conclude that alcohol was definitely purchased, I take the view that the consumption of alcohol at a quarterly strategic Director’s Group meeting would be inappropriate and contrary to the expectations of the community. Consumption of alcohol is associate with social and leisure activities, not work.”
He noted that over the course of two and a half years, the Director’s Group spent more than $4,000 on restaurant meals, which he believed did not provide any public value.
Lines also criticised the Director’s Group’s use of hire cars, as they each had a fully funded vehicle. Dowd denied suggestions that the directors may have been consuming alcohol, stating that hire cars were used “because even one modest glass of alcohol over the course of a meeting that transverses several hours, coupled with fatigue and stress, operates to affect the concentration and reaction times of a driver, just as much as exceeding the blood alcohol limit does”.
It was alleged that $12,623.53 was been spent on Director’s Group meetings, including meals, venue hire, car hire, and catering between 2014 and 2016.
The council also spent a substantial amount on flowers, Lines found. A total of $12,631.41 was spent on flowers between 2014-2016. He argued the practice of staff buying flowers for each other using council credit cards — except for in cases of bereavement — along with the failure to keep accurate records, constituted “substantial” mismanagement of public resources.
The ombud also found a range of businesses gave council employees gifts, such as concert and sporting tickets, which breached the (now defunct) code of conduct at the time. However, he noted there has been a significant reduction in gifts accepted since the current Code of Conduct for council employees was enacted in 2018.
Lines reported the council spent $4,923 on a roof climb at Adelaide Oval as part of a strategic planning day.
“Whilst it may have been an enjoyable, morale-building experience for the council employees, I do not consider that the public gained any benefit from the inclusion of the roof climb as an activity. Mr Dowd has acknowledged that community sentiment was opposed to the expenditure associated with the roof climb,” he wrote.
He concluded the former mayor Lorraine Rosenberg did not commit maladministration in public administration, and recommended the council amend its Purchase Card Procedure by removing a provision that allowed staff to not record the reason for an expense when making a purchase.
The acting CEO Kirk Richardson has apologised on behalf of the council.
“The expenditure was out of step with our community’s expectations and we acknowledge that,” he wrote in a statement.
“We’re continuing to work hard to regain the trust of our communities and acknowledge that more transparent and accountable work practices are required to achieve that.
“The purchases highlighted as inappropriate by the ombudsman should not have been made at the expense of ratepayers and he has advised that improvements were necessary to our policies and procedures.”
He said the council has been looking for a new CEO, and has “stronger policies and procedures in place that continuously remind us we are here to serve our communities and their best interests”.